We’re ready to come up from the dark underbelly of Scripture. We’ve looked at some of the most common answers to defend the genocidal Canaan conquest passages. We could go a lot deeper, but I think I’ve stretched you enough for now. 🙂
Now, I would like to share how I’ve come to understand these troubling texts.
I wouldn’t be surprised if it was God who raised up skeptics and atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens to get us to wake up and deal with these passages honestly and responsibly. By not dealing with them in a coherent way, we inadvertently create doubt and unbelief instead of strengthening the faith. More importantly, we totally miss the deep richness hidden for us. We undermine worshiping God with all of our minds and letting His living Word expose and then transform our hearts. We’re simply cauterizing our conscience and creating a cognitive dissonance in our soul by glossing over these troubling texts.
As Thom Stark put it, it’s precisely this struggle through moral uncertainty that makes us moral beings.
Scripture is a mirror. It mirrors humanity, because it is as much the product of human beings as it is the product of the divine. When we peer into the looking glass and see the many faces of God, we see ourselves among them. The mirror reflects our doubt and our mediocrity. It mirrors our best and worst possible selves. It shows us who we can be, both good and evil, and everything in between. To cut the condemned texts [Genocide narratives] out of the canon would be to shatter that mirror. It would be to hide from ourselves our very own capacity to become what we most loathe. It would be to lie to ourselves about what we are capable of. It would be to doom ourselves to repeat history.” (Stark, The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (And Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It), loc. 7142, Kindle version)
The darker side of ignoring this is that we make room for a theology that condones all kinds of evil things: violence, hatred, racism, slavery, nationalism, imperialism, genocide, and many other inhumanities to mankind, all because we’ve painted these things onto God’s face.
Yes, Scripture is inspired by God, profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness (2 Tim.3:16), but the idea of biblical inerrancy is a relatively modern view (see part four). The Bible itself does not claim to be inerrant. It’s not a verbatim account dictated by God, and not everywhere it’s written “God said” is something God actually said.
As Stark pointed out, the Bible is inspired in a much deeper way. We’re to look directly into this “mirror” and see ourselves in it so we can be transformed by it.
How, then, can we truly know God through Scripture? I’m glad you asked!
The Jesus hermeneutic
I’ve already written about the Jesus Hermeneutic, so I won’t elaborate here. What you should know is that you don’t have to be a Bible scholar in order to rightly understand Scripture.
You just need Jesus to guide you.
John Wesley embraced a Jesus hermeneutic, as C.S. Cowles points out:
“Jesus is “the criterion” for evaluating Scripture, the prism through which the Hebrew Scriptures must be read.” (Wesley, “Free Grace.” Quoted from C.S. Cowles, Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, loc. 471)
We also need to learn how to read Scripture like Jesus. Later in the same book, Cowles summarizes how Jesus Himself engaged the text:
“While Jesus affirmed the Hebrew Scriptures as the authentic Word of God, he did not endorse every word in them as God’s. He rejected some Torah texts as representing the original intention and will of God, such as Moses’ divorce laws (Mark 10:4–9). He displaced Moses’ laws governing vengeance with his new ethic of active nonviolent resistance, of “overcome[ing] evil with good” (Matt. 5:38–42; Rom. 12:21). His command to “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44) represents a total repudiation of Moses’ genocidal commands and stands in judgment on Joshua’s campaign of ethnic cleansing. In his word of absolution to the woman taken in adultery, Jesus contravened the clear injunctions of the Torah calling for adulterers to be put to death (John 8:1–11; cf. Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22).” (Loc. 489 Kindle version)
We see Jesus’ repudiation of Israel’s nationalistic view of a retributive God in Luke 9:53-56. James and John wanted to call fire down on the Samaritans like Elijah did, but Jesus rebukes them, revealing God’s true mission:
55 But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. 56 For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” (Luke 9:55 NKJV)
And this brings me to my last point….
As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggerman points out, the Bible is full of testimony and counter-testimony. We don’t need atheists and skeptics to point out the “red spades” and “black hearts” for us because Scripture disputes them openly!
What we need are eyes to see them.
There are at least three voices in Scripture. First, you have the narrative, the military conquests, etc. This is what Brad Jersak calls the “government press release” or “ministry of propaganda” voice. Brueggermann would call it the “testimony.” Then, you have the prophetic voice that often undermines and questions this narrative (“counter-testimony”). Jersak calls this the “embedded journalist” voice.
We saw this in “Was Ezra xenophobic?” with Amos’ prophetic response to Israel’s religious racial pride (Amos 9:7). I could also point out Jeremiah’s and Isaiah’s questioning of Israel’s idea of worship, saying He never wanted their burnt offerings! (See Jer.7:22-23; Isa.1:11-18.)
The third and final voice is that of Jesus (Heb.1:1-3). For instance, He says six times in Matthew chapter five, “You have heard it said, but I say….”, basically subverting Israel’s whole view of the nature of God and what it means to follow Him.
What we discover by taking all of these voices into account is not contradiction, but God’s true desire unveiled, which has always been to have a people whose hearts are fully engaged with His, as He has always been fully devoted to them.
From Genesis to Revelation, it all comes down to this one thing: embracing God’s love and loving Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving others the same way. This is the “Law of Christ” (Matt.22:37-40; Gal.6:1-2).
The Bible invites us to not just read the text, but to engage the text. Again, rather than accepting what the text says with unquestioning obedience, (“The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”), we should practice the art of faithful questioning. We should let “His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” (2 Cor.4:6).
I will end with a video clip from Brad Jersak. He describes a similar journey with the Bible that I went through myself. He talks about three “eras” in his relationship with the Bible. I fast-forwarded the clip to his third phase, which is pertinent to our discussion here. It’s a longer clip, but worth watching. Jersak uses the 1 Samuel 15 genocidal passage (Samuel and Saul) here to describe how he engages the text now.
An important final note
Hopefully, you’ve found this series helpful to your understanding of these darker passages in Scripture. You’ll notice that I’ve hyperlinked the various authors and books throughout this series for reference, and for further reading if you so desire. I don’t agree with everything these authors say, and they don’t always agree with each other. But I trust that you have a brain and the Holy Spirit to guide you through it all.
Enjoy your journey with God as you engage these texts with Him. Let it become the “mirror” that transforms your soul and makes you more like Jesus!